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Funding in part by the R.W. Naito Foundation

Climate Change in Oregon


An Introduction

By Josh Howe, Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Reed College

In Oregon, within a few hundred miles you can see snowy volcanoes, parched deserts, semiarid grasslands, alpine meadows, and coastal temperate rain forests. On any given day, the weather across the state can range from freezing cold to baking hot, from bone dry to soaking wet, from tranquil to tempestuous. Oregon regularly experiences the extremes of average precipitation, temperature, humidity, and wind characteristic of the North American West. Some places in the Coast Range, for example, receive as many as 200 inches of rain in some years, while the rain shadow of Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon sometimes receives as little as five inches. But even highly variable weather creates patterns over time, and scientists use the word climate to describe those patterns over decades, or even centuries.

Oregon’s climate is not only diverse, it is also changing. In geological time—the intervals of time that geologists use to chart changes and sequences of events in the rock record—Oregon’s climate has vacillated between tropical and arctic. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, human activity has contributed to changes in the Earth’s climate, causing geological change on shorter, human timescales. Scientists refer to the changes that humans make to climate as anthropogenic Climate Change, which have occurred largely as a result of changes in the composition of the atmosphere, particularly through the emission of greenhouse gases like CO2 that increase the overall temperature of the Earth. Because anthropogenic climate change, on balance, increases the overall temperature of the planet, it is also often referred to as anthropogenic warming or, more commonly, global warming. The terms are not perfectly interchangeable, but both have been used to describe the causes of the climate crisis, a term scientists and concerned citizens often use to refer to the related negative effects of an increase in average global temperatures on animal and human populations, as well as the ecosystems and infrastructure on which they rely.



Josh Howe writes that the Keeling Curve is a "form of storytelling" that has two concurrent parts: the story of the seasonal oscillation of the life cycle of plants—what he calls the "breathing" of the Earth—and the story of humans burning fossil fuels. The first is a story of "nature"; the second is a story of "un-nature." Humans historically have "collapsed" or conflated their activity with natural processes. The Keeling Curve untangles that conflation, revealing that the "tension between the natural and the unnatural embedded in the two lines" informs "the recent emphasis in climate change discourse." When people realized they were "agents of geophysical change," they were able to locate themselves on a collective "anthropogenic timeline," opening the way to a reconsideration of "narratives of modernity."

Keeling Curve

The Keeling Curve is a graphic representation of the concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. In 1958, climate scientist Charles Keeling, who worked at the California Institute of Technology, began testing air samples for CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii and in Antarctica. He recorded changes in CO2 concentrations throughout the day, from month to month and year to year. Plotting the data on a graph, he demonstrated the correlation between rising CO2, which contributes to a warming planet, and an increase in the use of fossil fuels by humans. Scientists continued adding new data to the graph along a continuous timeline, making the Keeling Curve a valuable tool for recording—and visually understanding—how the history of human activity, the rise of CO2, and climate change are connected.

"The Keeling Curve, the oscillating upward-sloping graph of measured atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)," environmental historian Joshua Howe wrote, is "one of the most important and powerful scientific symbols of anthropogenic [human-caused] climate change. It may seem odd to read a simple measure of atmospheric gas through the many-sided prism of modern American life the way you might read a historical photograph or piece of art. And yet the Keeling Curve functions as much as a symbol in our collective understanding of climate change as it does a representation of data about CO2." [Howe, "This is Nature; This is Un-Nature: Reading the Keeling Curve," Environmental History 20 (2015): 286-93.]

A brief history of Climate Change in Oregon

This timeline includes some of Oregon's contributions to Climate Change and its efforts to mitigate it. We begin a million years ago and then zoom in to human habitation and activity during the decades when technology and fossil fuels were used to transform the water, the land, and the air. The timeline jumps in time to illustrate how quickly the climate has changed since the end of the eighteenth century. Through the timeline, we can see how human activity after the start of the Industrial Revolution warmed the Earth over a century or two. We can also see when people realized the dangers of a too-rapidly changing climate and began a flurry of scientific study and strategic planning, all in an effort to hold off a global disaster.

1,000,000 BCE
Great Ice Age USGS.jpg
The Great Ice Age begins, marked by recurring periods of glaciations
12000 BCE
Approximate arrival of humans in Oregon, based on archeological evidence
9500 BCE
The Great Ice Age ends
Pennsylvania coal mine
Anthracite coal, which has the highest carbon content, is mined in Pennsylvania.
c. 1793
Solvay Process Co.'s Works, Syracuse
Beginning of the U.S. Industrial Revolution
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark make their overland journey to the Oregon Country, creating a map of the region, which they shared with the world.
The fur trade era begins in Oregon Country, initiating a global trade network.
The migration west along the Oregon Trail begins to populate the Willamette Valley.
Industry on the Willamette River, Portland, 1937
Development of the Willamette River begins.
Oregon becomes a state.
Edwin Drake
Edwin Drake drills the first productive oil well in the U.S.
c. 1871
Sandy Glacier is discovered on Mount Hood. the first documentation of glaciers in Oregon.
Forest and Hills
American Forestry Association begins an era of scientific forest management practices.
Svante August Arrhenius
Svante Arrhenius creates the first climate model of the effects of atmospheric CO2.
1900s - 1950s
Snow Fields - Three Sisters, Oregon
Oregon’s glaciers retreat rapidly.
Yacolt Burn, 1902
The Yacolt Burn destroys forestland in Washington and Oregon.
General Disque and officers of the Spruce Production Division
World War I begins.
c. 1920
Lucky Jim Oil Field, Texas, 1917
Texas and Persian Gulf oil fields open, kickstarting an era of large-scale petroleum development.
Tillamook Burn
The Tillamook Burn destroys 350,000 acres of old-growth timber in the northern Oregon Coast Range.
Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation launching “Star of Oregon”
World War II begins.
Keeling Curve
CO2 concentration is 315 parts per million. The Keeling Curve begins tracking atmospheric CO2.
Spillway at O.D.C.M. & C. Company's coal mine
Coal becomes the primary fuel for generating electricity
Governor Tom McCall at a 1970 Earth Day Celebration
Tom McCall becomes governor of Oregon.
DEQ logo
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is founded.
Landscape illustration
Federal Clean Air Act is enacted.
Willamette River, algal bloom
Federal Water Pollution Control Act is enacted.
Crowd at the Vortex I Music Festival
Car owners consume over half of all petroleum products in the U.S.
Marbled Murrelet
Endangered Species Act is enacted.
Map of temperature anomalies, 2021
“Global warming” appears for the first time in print in “Climactic Change: Are We on the Brink of Pronounced Global Warming,” by Wallace Smith Broecker.
Snow Fields - Three Sisters, Oregon
Glacier retreat resumes.
Keeling Curve
CO2 concentration is 337 parts per million.
Putting out fires
Report that 4% of Oregon land has burned every year since 1984.
Ice cave, Collier Glacier
Collier Glacier on the Three Sisters has lost 64% of its area and retreated 1,500 meters since 1910.
States Guidance Document, 1995
Oregon Department of Energy releases Report on Reducing Oregon’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Keeling Curve
CO2 concentration is 367 parts per million.
Map of Biscuit Fire boundaries, 2002
The Biscuit Fire burns 50,000 acres in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Solar panels on state capitol, Salem
Oregon is the first state to install solar panels on the state capitol.
WESTCARB territory map
US Department of Energy establishes the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership.
Oregon Strategy for Greenhouse Gas Reduction
Governor’s Advisory Group on Global Warming issues Oregon Strategy for Greenhouse Gas Reductions.
Biglow Canyon Wind Farm, Oregon
Biglow Canyon Wind Farm opens in Sherman County.
HB 3543
HB 3543 establishes the Global Warming Commission and the Climate Change Research Institute.
Oregon Solar Highway
The first solar highway in the United States is completed at the interchange of I-5 and I-205 in Portland.
Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood
Report that Eliot Glacier had lost 19% of its area and retreated 600 meters since 1900.
Oregon Parks and Recreation logo
Oregon Parks and Recreation Department releases Climate Change Response Preparedness and Action Plan.
Keeling Curve
CO2 concentration is 400 parts per million.
Plaintiffs, Juliana v. United States, 2016
Juliana v. US charges that governmental actions that cause climate change violate youth’s rights to liberty, justice, and property.
Global Climate Strike, 2019
Thousands of students walk out of schools in Worldwide Climate Strike.
Legislative Walkout by Republicans over Climate Change
Republicans walk out of the Oregon House of Representative to prevent a vote on reducing carbon emissions.
Boardman coal plant dismantled, 2022
Boardman Coal Plant (Oregon’s number-one point-source of carbon dioxide emissions) closes.
Cougar Peak Fire, 2021
Wildfires burn over a million acres in Oregon.
Excessive heat map, 2021
Multnomah County reaches 108, 112, and 116 degrees during Oregon Heat Dome.

Understanding the language of climate change

The study of a rapidly changing climate is somewhat recent. As our understanding of the world has changed, so has the language we use to describe it. Agreeing on the definitions of the words and phrases connected to Climate Change is essential to the cooperative effort among scientists, political leaders, and the general public to address the effects of a warming planet. Knowing the difference between "weather" and "climate," for example, helps push the conversation forward toward shared understandings and goals.

I understand you

Climate Change Resource Index

This index provides links to agencies, organizations, and news sites that provide information to everyone on global warming and climate change. These resources have been evaluated by OE staff for their science-based approach and readability. Many of the sites are directly relevant to the effects of Climate Change in Oregon, while others take a national and global view. The resources are divided into five categories: Teaching Climate Change in Oregon; Databases, Charts, and Graphs; Native Americans and Climate Change; Climate Change Activism; and Climate Change in Arts and Culture.

Reading the Opportunity News, 1966